Academics July 24 2019

Xavier to Transform Freshman Biology Experience through NSF Grant

New Orleans LA – Xavier University of Louisiana’s Biology Department has been awarded a $400,000 grant by the National Science Foundation through the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) over the course of three years.  This program, through the Targeted Infusion Projects (TIPs) competition, provides support to achieve short-term, well-defined goals to improve undergraduate STEM education. 

The current TIP at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA) seeks to re-design two freshmen lab courses as Course Based Research Experiences (CUREs).  Although merits of early research experiences are well-documented, very few freshmen at smaller institutions and HBCUs have research opportunities during their very first year of college. The proposed project aims at bridging this gap by infusing two authentic research projects in Biology’s foundational labs. The first, entitled the ‘Yeast ORFan’ project, in collaboration with Juanita College, PA, aims at characterizing unknown genes to determine their functions in yeast.  The second, in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), LA, is centered on discovering novel regulatory genes in Aspergillus (a filamentous fungus) species known to damage crops of human consumption. 

Due to a lack of having established CUREs as part of their curricula at undergraduate minority-serving institutions, there is a great need to study classroom-based research experiences and their multi-level impacts on underrepresented minorities (URMs) along with students who differ in factors like race and ethnicity. 

“Xavier will be the first HBCU in Louisiana and likely the entire nation to convert high enrollment freshmen level courses into CUREs so that every single enrolled student will get to participate in exciting, integrative research and learn science by doing science,” said Dr. Shubha Ireland, Professor of Biology and Special Assistant to the Provost for Life Sciences Education at Xavier University.  “Based on current literature, we believe that this initiative will be a positive factor in increasing and maintaining student interest and retention in the sciences, which in turn, will have a direct effect in contributing to the ever-growing need for STEM graduates and post-graduates across the country.”  Ireland will serve as the Principal Investigator of this grant.  Three other faculty will serve as key personnel to implement this initiative: Dr. Andrea Edwards, the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Chair of Computer Science), Dr. Hector Biliran, Associate Professor of Biology and Dr. Joanna Haye, Assistant Professor of Biology.

The two CUREs, designed to increase students’ scientific competencies, motivation and self-efficacy while broadening their knowledge of career options, will impact 500 plus freshmen each year.  Spanning over both semesters of their freshman-year, all incoming Biology majors will learn genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, statistics, and bioinformatics, along with research techniques to hone their analytical and problem-solving skills. The freshmen will also receive training in scientific writing and communication. The acquisition of these new skills and knowledge early on will have applications in upper level courses at XULA and contribute to student success in college and beyond. 

The impact of the XULA CURE model will be measured and assessed in multiple areas including affective gains and student retention rates in the department of Biology. By engaging every single Biology freshman in authentic research, this TIP will further enrich the XULA Biology curriculum, prepare the next generation of scientists and open new scientific career pathways.  With the participation of more than 1,500 students over the course of three years, this TIP will positively influence the numbers of URMs joining the US STEM workforce.  The first CURE will be launched in the Fall semester of 2019.